A/N: Apparently I'm writing for this fandom again.
The old abandoned hotel was pitch black. The only light came from the LCD screens on the cameras and recorders Dib juggled. The air was stale and choked with dust and mold.
Dib set two of the cameras on tripods - one for night vision and one for thermal imaging. After three long hours of investigating, he'd heard nothing more than a few unexplained bangs that might have been plaster falling from the ceiling. He decided to try questioning any spirits that might be in the room. They seemed to respond relatively well to questions. He held up his digital recorder.
"If there's anyone here, you can talk into this device with this red light, and it'll record your voice. Whoa, what is that?"
The monitor on the thermal imaging camera showed a bright orange figure walking across the hallway, darting out of one door and into another. Then it stuck its head halfway out of the door frame. There was something familiar about the way it moved, and its size and shape…
Dib aimed the night vision camera in the same direction. His suspicions were confirmed as he saw a solid, flesh-and-blood face peeking out of the doorway.
He huffed. "I know you're here Zim."
Zim jumped, his eyes widening. Then he stepped out into the hallway.
"Well, I wanted you to know I'm here! Yes, that was part of my plan all along!" He seemed to have no trouble seeing in the dark building, thanks to his ocular implants.
"How long have you been here?"
Zim shrugged. "It seemed like an hour."
Dib rolled his eyes. "Okay, we're gonna have to review all the unexplained noises and see if we can debunk them."
"We're gonna what?"
Dib held the camera out to Zim so he could see and hear the video.
"There, that creak, was that you?"
"I'll rewind it. There, it sounded like the floorboard creaked."
"Oh. Oh yeah, that was probably because I stepped on it."
"What about that loud bang?"
"That was me."
"And what about-"
"I remember that because my PAK malfunctioned and distracted me," added Zim, talking over Dib's attempt to move on to the next unexplained noise. "I ran into a ladder and knocked it over. Stupid human ladders. Irkens have no need of-"
"Your PAK malfunctioned?" Dib asked eagerly. "In what way?"
"First it sent a message to my meat brain." In the dim light from the cameras, Zim pointed to his forehead. "Just the word 'energy.' Then it generated an error message. It had performed an illegal operation and had to shut itself down. When it rebooted, my vision went black, and I ran into the ladder."
"How often does that happen?"
"Running into a ladder?"
"Come on, you know what I mean."
He stared ahead for few seconds as he thought. "I've had to reboot a few times before, but I've never had error messages like that."
"Aha! That could be a sign of spirit activity!"
"Pffft. Yeah, right. An invisible dead human is making my PAK malfunction," Zim said scornfully.
Dib scowled. He got enough of this from other people; he didn't need his paranormal subjects doubting each other's existence.
"They do that with electronics. Haven't you ever heard of lights flickering on and off in haunted houses?"
"Ha! That's an urban legend. Like pirates."
Dib facepalmed. "Stop saying words."
"Never! Do you really believe all malfunctions are caused by your dead? Because if that's true, GIR must be haunted."
"Actually, that would explain a few things. But no, I don't think all malfunctions are paranormal. It depends on the circumstance. Like, if a full battery suddenly dies, that's evidence of spirit activity. It means the spirit is using the energy to manifest itself in some way."
"Oh come on, now you're just making stuff up - Oh my Tallest!" Zim flailed his arm in a vague, panicky gesture. "A dead human!"
"Where?" cried Dib, whirling around to face empty darkness.
"Hahahahaha! Ha! You humans are too easy to trick, especially you, Dib."
"That's not funny!" Dib rounded on Zim and glared down at him - he'd grown over a foot taller than the alien in the three years they'd known each other. "Did you come here just to be an annoying jerk?"
Zim folded his arms. "I just wanted to see what was more important than foiling my new doomsday device."
"You're still hung up on that? I told you I'd get to it tomorrow."
"It is tomorrow!"
"I meant much later tomorrow. You know, after I finish this investigation and get some sleep."
"I see. Earth isn't as important as your invisible dead humans who probably don't exist."
"Stop being passive-aggressive," snapped Dib, although he wasn't entirely sure he was using the term correctly, since he was far more familiar with the active type of aggression. "They do exist, and I'd rather hunt them tonight than foil another one of your stupid schemes that will probably just backfire anyway!"
"Fine! I'll go back to my base right now and start it up! Then you'll be sorry! Or maybe your ghost will be-" he broke off with a gasp; then, in quite a different tone, he said, "I'm blind!"
Dib pressed record and aimed the night vision camera at Zim. "Is there someone here with us?"
"How should I know? I can't see!"
"I was talking to the ghost."
Zim didn't respond right away. His lens-covered eyes were unfocused. "My PAK - it's saying it needs energy. But I just charged it."
Dib saw, too, the low battery signal flashing on his camera. He should've had a few more hours of power left. As he fumbled for his back-up battery, a man laughed. It definitely wasn't Zim. The hair on the back of Dib's neck and arms stood up. He began to tremble. Was he feeling a spirit's presence?
"You think this is funny, Dib-stink?"
"That wasn't-" He gasped and jumped back in shock. A man just appeared out of nowhere. In the darkness, he gave off a faint, eldritch glow. He was very tall, dressed in an old-fashioned suit and tie and a wide-brimmed fedora that hid his eyes in deep shadow. The man smirked and disappeared.
"Oh my God!" Dib looked all around to see where the man had gone, but there was no sign of him.
The camera was dark.
Dib sighed. "Please tell me I got that on tape."
Zim was very quiet. Actually, he was no longer standing; he'd sunk in a little heap on the floor. Dib felt for his flashlight and shone it on the Irken. His eyes were shut, and his ribcage moved beneath his tunic, but otherwise he was perfectly still.
Dib reached down and shook the Irken's shoulder. "Wake up."
There was no response.
"Did you use Zim's energy to appear?" he asked, in case the spirit was still in the hallway. "Did you tell him you wanted his energy first? Did you use energy from my battery too? Do you want to be filmed? Do you want us here?"
Dib didn't hear it, but at that moment his digital recorder picked up a male voice, the same one that laughed.
"If you'd let me get a word in edgewise…"
Dib picked up the thermal imaging camera and did a quick sweep of the area. He wondered when Zim would wake up - if he would even wake up on his own. Irkens didn't have a natural sleep cycle, since they drew most of their energy from their PAKs, which had to be plugged into a power source to be recharged on a regular basis. Even during their downtime, Irkens stayed partly alert, doing general maintenance and chores, or just watching TV. At least, that's what Zim did. Dib realized that it was probably inaccurate to make generalizations about an entire race based on one individual, but he didn't have a better option at this point.
Zim was always careful not to let his battery get completely spent. Now he was at Dib's mercy. The human considered just leaving him in the vacant hotel for the ghosts to play with. Zim was asking for it.
The problem with this idea was that the owner of the property might come inside eventually to check for vandalism or other illegal activity. He'd surely find Zim and probably have him taken to the hospital. They couldn't help him there. At one time Dib would have seriously considered turning Zim over to the Swollen Eyeball Network, but that was before Zim's PAK had attached to him. For a few long minutes, he'd experienced what it was like to be Zim, and the Irken never completely left his head, although Dib would never admit it out loud.
He checked the time on his mobile phone. He had enough time to take Zim back to his base and return to the haunted hotel to finish the investigation. But first, he was itching to review the video on his night vision camera. He switched out the battery and started playing near the end of the most recent video. On the tiny screen, Zim stared vacantly before closing his eyes and sinking to the floor - and then the video ended. Of course it did.
"I know what I saw," said Dib to the empty hallway as he set up his cameras to record during his absence.
Then he shone his flashlight on Zim, wondering how he was going to carry the Irken and the flashlight at the same time. It didn't occur to him that the electricity was connected in the hotel and he could just turn on the lights. That just wasn't done when investigating a haunting.
He briefly dragged Zim along the floor, but this required him to walk backwards. Then he heaved the Irken over his shoulder and carried him like a sack of potatoes. It was still awkward, but at least Dib could see where he was going.
Forty-five minutes later, the Robo-parents answered the door with "Welcome home son!"
Dib rolled his eyes. He didn't understand why Zim kept them activated when they were really only needed on parent-teacher night.
"Can I speak to the real head of household?" he asked.
"What is it this time?" Zim's Computer replied wearily.
"A ghost drained Zim's PAK," explained the human as he carried the Irken inside and lowered him to the floor.
"Really?" The Computer sounded confused. "They can do that?"
"Great, even Zim's Computer doubts me."
"Master sleepin'?" asked GIR, wandering into the living room without his canine disguise.
"He needs to be recharged," said Dib.
"I got just the thing!" GIR's metal head opened, and he pulled out a can of Monster Poop. Since it had been rattling around inside the robot's head, the energy drink sprayed in all directions when he opened it, soaking everything within a four-foot radius, including Dib's clothes. Dib hated getting his clothes wet. Zim was drenched, too, but his skin wasn't burning thanks to his daily coat of paste.
"Seriously?" Dib snapped at GIR. "I might as well have left Zim with ghosts."
The android hung his head, his antenna drooping.
"Or you could take him down to my nerve center so I can hook him up," said the Computer. "You have to meet me halfway, I can't do everything myself."
GIR perked up. "I got him!" He lifted Zim's feet and started walking toward the kitchen. Dib caught up with him and grabbed Zim under his armpits. He didn't trust the dysfunctional robot to carry the Irken to the nerve center by himself. GIR tried to pull Zim toward the toilet entrance, but Dib steered him away.
"I can't fit in the toilet. I don't want to either, but that's beside the point."
"But the toilet comes out closer to the nerve center."
"Did you miss the part where I can't fit?"
"Ooohh," GIR began to giggle, Zim's feet slipping form his tiny metal hands and falling to the floor. "Because your head's so big!" He laughed harder.
"No," said Dib, growing more irritated by the second, "because toilets aren't meant for humans to go through."
"Because their heads are big!" GIR spread his arms gleefully. "Especially you!"
Seeing that reasoning with the infantile android was a lost cause, the human chose to ignore this comment and simply half-dragged Zim to the fridge.
GIR trotted over and opened the door, actually appearing helpful - until he grabbed another Monster Poop can. But Dib would take whatever semblance of help he could get.
After the Computer moved the fridge lift down three levels, Dib pulled Zim out into the Making Stuff Room. GIR picked up one of Zim's feet, since his other hand held the energy drink, and accompanied him across the room and down a hallway. Dib thought about the paranormal phenomena that he could be capturing on camera at this very moment. It didn't matter that Zim was technically paranormal. He wasn't a spirit.
As soon as Dib and GIR dragged Zim into the Nerve Center, the Computer shot a charger cable toward Zim's PAK…which bounced off and skittered on the floor. GIR laughed, picked up the cable and threw it at Zim.
Dib looked quizzically at GIR; then at the cable.
"You'll have to open the charge port manually, I guess," said the Computer.
The human sighed. "Fine. I owe him this much for making that ghost appear."
"How did he do that?"
"You can ask him when he wakes up." Dib felt Zim's PAK, catching his stubby fingernail in a crease around one of the circles. He slid it open and plugged the cable into the port.
Zim's eyes snapped open, but he was as groggy as a person waking from deep sleep.
"Wha?" he pushed himself to a sitting position. "What happened?"
"You mean you don't know?" asked the Computer.
Zim rubbed the corners of his eyes. "My PAK malfunctioned. I'm sure it's the Dib's fault somehow."
"My fault? I made you follow me to the old hotel?"
The invader blinked up at him. He opened his mouth, then closed it and slowly stood, giving his brain a chance to catch up with his tongue for a change.
"You didn't make me, but you knew I would follow you there! Didn't you!"
"You said so yourself!"
"That was when I picked you up on thermal imagining! I mean, come on!"
"You knew that horrible place would drain my energy."
"I knew it was a possibility, but - you know what, I don't have time for this. I've got an investigation to finish." Dib turned to leave.
"Not until you get a good look at my doomsday device! Or did you do it already? You destroyed it while I was out cold just to spite me!"
Dib rounded on Zim. "What - I haven't even seen it!"
"It's right there in the Making Stuff Room!" Zim pointed toward the hallway. "You had to pass it to come here!"
"Mm-hm, you passed it right up," GIR informed Dib between sips from his Monster Poop.
"Really?" The human furrowed his brow. "What did it look like?" He didn't remember seeing anything out of the ordinary. Then again, he'd been focused on taking Zim to Nerve Control and hadn't paid close attention to his surroundings. Without waiting for Zim to answer, he walked back up the hall. The Irken tried to follow, but the cable reached only as far as the doorway. It stretched taut before popping out of Zim's PAK. Zim's momentum carried him forward a few steps; then he collapsed to the floor.
Dib put his hand over his eyes - carefully, so as not to smudge his glasses. Then he dragged Zim within reach of the cable and plugged it back into his PAK. Zim's eyes opened and he got to his feet again. Dib held out his palm, signaling him to stop.
"If you unplug yourself again, I'm not plugging you back in."
Zim waved his hand dismissively. "That's what you said last time."
"No, I - when did I say that?"
"Don't try to deny it Dib-worm."
"You're tired. Go watch TV or something."
"Don't patronize Zim!"
"Stop acting like a moron and I won't patronize you."
"Well, you…smell!" said Zim, unable to think of a solid comeback but determined to have the last word.
"Look, I left my cameras rolling at the hotel, so I'm gonna go now. Seriously, don't unplug yourself again." Dib turned and walked back toward the Making Stuff Room.
"Curses! Trapped in my own base!"
Dib didn't look back; instead he glanced around the Making Stuff Room. Now that he was looking for it, he did see a new invention that was almost twice Dib's height. It was so large, he wondered how he'd missed it.
"Is this the doomsday device?" asked Dib.
"Maaaaybe," drawled GIR, who had followed the human, mainly because his master couldn't.
"Yes," the Computer answered clearly before muttering something that sounded like "Unfortunately."
"Did you just mumble?" asked the human, raising his eyebrow.
"Computer! Stop mumbling and tell the Dib not to foil my doomsday device until I can go in there!"
"I can hear you, you know," called Dib. "I think my dad heard you."
"Never mind. So why does it look like a giant bug zapper?"
"Computer, tell Dib to come back tomorrow and Zim will show him what it does!"
The Computer sighed.
Dib was starting to grow curious about Zim's newest doomsday device, but he remembered his cameras in the hotel. As he tried to enter the lift, he banged his forehead on the top of the doorway.
"Ow!" He rubbed his forehead. "Didn't this used to be bigger?"
"What, five minutes ago?" asked the Computer.
"No." Dib cradled his head, trying to suck up the pain. "A year or so ago."
Dib didn't notice that GIR had followed him inside the lift until the android pressed an energy drink into his hand.
"You want one?"
"Um, thanks," said Dib, raising his eyebrows in bemusement.
"You don't want that," said the Computer.
The human narrowed his eyes at GIR. "What did you do?"
"I picked it up and gave it to you," GIR replied innocently.
"What did you do before that?"
"I rode the fridge up to the house."
Dib examined the can - there was no sign of tampering.
GIR crushed his own emptied can against his head. Then he ate the can and followed Dib out the front door.
The human shot him a meaningful look. "What are you doing?"
"Uh…" GIR stared blankly up at him. "I'm going where you're going?"
Dib thought for a second. "Look! The Angry Monkey!" He pointed toward the base.
"Where?" GIR swiveled his head all around.
"He went behind the house! Go get him!"
The android squealed and ran where the human had directed. Dib felt just a little guilty for tricking him, remembering how he felt when Zim had used a similar trick on him. Then he reminded himself that GIR worked for Zim, which made the robot technically evil. Besides, he would get over it soon. It wasn't like he was a human girl - namely, Gaz.
It was 3:15 when Dib returned to the hotel - three full hours after he'd left. Still, it was prime time for spirits. Dib's heart pounded as he checked to make sure his cameras and digital recorder were still on. He reviewed a few minutes of each camera and saw no anomalies - he didn't want to review the entire three hours yet because then he might miss some activity in real time. But the rest of the investigation was anticlimactic. He saw no visual anomalies, either with his own eyes or on the camera monitors. But he did capture a few Class-A EVPs, so it wasn't a total wash. The EVPs came through Dib's spirit box, a device that generated white noise that made it easier for spirits to speak through.
"Is someone here? What's your name? Why-"
"Mugsy," said a male voice through the spirit box.
Dib's eyes opened wide. "Did you say 'Mugsy'? Really? Wait, are you the Mugsy that ran the speakeasy back in the 1920s?"
"You're that Mugsy?" echoed Dib, trembling with excitement. "Are you the man who took Zim's energy?"
"Where is he?"
"Zim? He's at his base. Do you want him to come back? Do you know he's an alien?" he added, on principle.
"Slow down? Slow down what? Talking?" asked Dib, furrowing his brow.
"Yes," Mugsy answered wearily.
Dib took a deep breath to relieve some of his nerves. "Okay." He stared at the spirit box in his hand. "If I get Zim to come back, will you show yourself again?"
The only answer was static. There were no more spirit voices for the rest of the night. Dib persisted talking to Mugsy and any spirit who would listen until the sky began to lighten.
"Next time I come here, I'll bring enough energy for you to manifest." Then he frowned as he finally listened to the words that were coming out of his own mouth. Mugsy wasn't a nice person. Besides operating an illegal bar and casino, he had broken the arms and kneecaps of people who had cheated him. Sometimes he'd broken worse than limbs.
"So why should I help you?" he asked out loud. "Why am I so…" He paused, trying to think of a good way to phrase it. "…Why am I so eager to comply with these paranormal creatures? I haven't encountered one that's any better than Zim! Why do I keep giving so much and getting so little? I just spent seven hours investigating and all I have to show for it are a few EVPs!" He rubbed his chin and glanced at his digital recorder. "Although they were really good EVPs. But still, there's gotta be a nice paranormal entity out there somewhere that I can work with!"
Dib nearly jumped out of his skin. But it wasn't a spirit that spoke; it was the owner of the hotel.
"You finished talking to the ghosts?"
"Yes, I'm finished. Just give me a minute to pack up," called Dib.
The sun was rising when Dib made it home. He went straight to bed without brushing his teeth.
A/N: This fanfic, like many of my other IZ fics, was strongly inspired by another source - in this case, Ghost Adventures on the Travel channel. I've had this idea ever since I started watching it two years ago. All of the devices Dib uses exist IRL, although how well they actually work is up to your own interpretation.
Somehow the focus drifted away from the haunting until it became a mere device to showcase Zim and Dib's frenemy relationship. Thus the title for this fanfic is somewhat misleading, but I couldn't come up with a better one. :/ I started another fanfic that spins off this one; hopefully I'll get around to finishing it.
Dib growing more than a foot in three years may seem unrealistically fast, but keep in mind that Dib is also unrealistically short as an eleven year-old. The humans in the IZ-verse have to reach adult height somehow, so accelerated growth as teens seems like the best solution.
Finally, I'm not sure if the recharging of Zim's PAK is canon-accurate, but it seemed like a good device for this fanfic.